Sunday, Nov. 10, was a busy day for me. In the afternoon, I went to hear the recital by pianist Yi-Nuo Wang, winner of the Concert Arts Award Competition, in the Foellinger Great Hall, and in the evening, I attended a program of “Classics of the British Choral Tradition” sung by Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana, at University Place Christian Church in Champaign.
Pianist Yi-Nuo Wang was born in Beijing, and she has had much experience as a performing artist. She now is studying for an undergraduate degree at the Juilliard School of Music.
The traditional lineup of compositions for a piano recital is thus: begin with a Baroque or Classical period work, then go to the Romantic Movement, and then on to “Modern” music. Wang reversed the process, beginning with Bela Bartok’s 1926 Sonata, Sz. 80. This work opens with a highly aggressive movement with percussive, repeated notes, truly a wakeup call for an audience! Clearly, Wang is an artist attracted to the grand gesture, and the piano at her command filled the distant reaches of the FGH with clangorous sound. Bartok’s music relaxed a bit in the middle movement of the Sonata, and Wang eloquently brought out the hints of folk-inspired humor in the finale.
The rest of the opening half of the program was devoted to the eight short pieces of Johannes Brahms’s Op. 76. These lively Capriccios and meditative Intermezzos offer a wide palette of moods, through which Wang navigated with animated bravura.
After intermission, Wang played a piece with the title “Ba Ban,” an allusion to a famous Chinese folk tune as well as the Chinese cultural significance of the number 8. This is a work by Chen Yi (b. 1953), a violinist and composer who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. Yi studied at Columbia University in New York, and her work “Si Ji” (“Four Seasons”) was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Music. “Ba Ban” is a powerful work, with virtuosic display passages, and it drew brilliant playing from Wang. At the work’s end, the composer used the topmost keys of the piano, resulting in sounds more percussive than melodic.
The music most evocative of emotional response was a selection of short pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff, mainly Preludes and Études Tableaux. My favorite was the piano version of his charming song, “Daisies.” This highly successful recital ended with the stormy Étude Tableau, Op. 39, No.9, and Wang’s fiery playing drew strong applause, with the on-stage audience standing in appreciation.
That evening, the Baroque Artists of Champaign, strongly led by their director Joseph Baldwin, offered a program of British composers of choral music from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The opening work, “O Nata Lux de Lumine,” (“O Light Born of Light”), was by Thomas Tallis ( c. 1505-1585), the English Catholic composer, who supplied Ralph Vaughan-Williams with a melody for his famous “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” This solemn office hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration was sung with admirable clarity by the BACH chorus, lined up at the edge of the altar. At the end of the piece, the audience remained silent, as if in church, as indeed we were. Later works on the program were strongly applauded.
The second work, George Frideric Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest” is very famous, especially if you have followed the popular British TV show, “The Crown.” At coronation ceremonies the music accompanies the entrance of the person to be crowned, and Handel’s music slowly builds up to one of his grandest climaxes, with the fortissimo entry of the chorus with the words “Zadok, the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king ” At these moments, Baldwin drew splendid singing from the BACH singers, and indeed, the level of singing throughout the evening was consistently very high.
My other favorite piece on the program was Vaughan Williams’ 1938 “Serenade to Music,” a piece in which famous passages from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” are used as text by chorus and soloists. This performance used eight soloists (instead of 16 as in the original performance), and the members of the chorus stepped forth to sing expressively the Bard’s iconic words. In this piece, Jonathan Young at the piano and Trevor Thompson, violinist, supplied admirable accompaniments.
After intermission, works by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and James MacMillan (b. 1959) were eloquently performed by the BACH chorus, and conducted with commendable dedication by Baldwin. Solo singing by Tim Rowell, tenor, Janna Watson and Audrey Vallance, sopranos, added to the attractiveness of these works. The concert reached a lovely and touching ending with the singing of MacMillan’s setting of “O Radiant Dawn, Splendour of eternal light, Sun of Justice, come shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”